Choosing the five best places to visit in Italy is a bit like choosing your five favorite Beatles songs. Any short list is bound to be inadequate but in this article you will find five attractions that I find unforgettable.
Rome: Cold water gushes from lions’ mouths. Her streets are maddening lanes thronged with people and wide open piazzas where the locals make out or feed the pigeons. Rome has more layers than any city on earth. See the Pantheon and go early when the beam of sunlight shines through the hole in the dome. I spent eight days in Rome and went back to the Pantheon at least five times just to see that. Next, catch a mass by his Holiness in St. Peter’s Square, surrounded by worshipers from all over the world. Finally, gaze up at the thunderous brow of God in the Sistine Chapel; it’s actually worth the wait in line.
Palermo: No city better encapsulates the fusion of cultures that makes up modern Italy than Palermo. The chapel of Roger II is bathed in Byzantine gold while the wooden stalactite carvings of its ceiling are tribute to the Islamic legacy the city still bears. The Cappuchin Catacombs, lined with centuries dead Palermitans arrayed in their Sunday best is the most disturbingly bizarre site you will find in all of Italy.
Milan: It’s monochrome and dingy but in Milano Augustus went to college and Hemingway fell in love. Milan is rivaled by only Paris and New York for pure edginess. Check out that monument to fascist grandiosity, Milano Centrale, at rush hour and you’ll see Italy at its horn rimmed-glasses-flamboyant-scarf-fancy-luggage best. Strolling through the Galleria, the grand Victorian concoction of stone, glass and steel, browsing Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, sipping a latte will make you feel like a rock star, or at least one of those anonymous European billionaires that has a mansion on Lake Como.
Trapani: The western corner of Sicily, composed of Trapani and Marsala, is the most Arab region in the whole country (make sure you try the local couscous). The whole region is dominated by Mount Erice, originally home to a temple to the Phoenician Goddess of Love where the priestesses practiced sacred acts of prostitution. The gondola ride up the grassy hillside, takes in cities, farms and the sea in three directions. The Egadi Islands not only boast white sand beaches equipped with gelato stands and trattorias that serve the best blue fin tuna in Europe but you can also spend hours lazing in the sun and not hear the English language.
Venice: As cliché as it sounds, there is no place quite like Venice. The image of gondola rides on the Grand Canal is, of course, part of the mystique, so is the sprawling piazza and carnival domes of St. Mark’s. Yet there is an intimacy that you can find unlike that of any other city. On my first day in Venice a fog bank rolled in from the Adriatic, enveloping the city in mist. My wife and I spent hours exploring the labyrinthine city, alternately slithering through crowds browsing the fish market or the high end boutiques and wandering into small squares filled only by our whispers and the pealing of distant church bells.